Late Credit Card Payments Tick Higher in First Quarter

Late payments on credit card bills climbed in the first quarter of this year as elevated gasoline prices and rising borrowing costs squeezed some family budgets and made it hard for them to pay bills on time.

The American Bankers Association, in a quarterly survey of consumer loans, reported Tuesday that the percentage of credit card payments 30 or more days past due increased to 4.40 percent in the January-March quarter, up from 4.27 percent in the closing quarter of last year.

The increase came after some recent improvements; the delinquency rates on credit cards had fallen in the previous two quarters.

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"Credit card loan payments are sensitive to financial pressures. As gas prices eased at the end of 2005, so did credit card late payments," explained James Chessen, the association's chief economist.

"But the favorable gas-price effect evaporated during the first quarter of 2006, and it's no wonder why. The Federal Reserve continues to raise interest rates and high energy prices are taking a bite out of disposable income," Chessen said.

Another factor in the higher delinquency rate is the extremely low savings rate of Americans. That gives them a limited financial cushion to deal with rising expenses, economists say.

The quarterly survey is based on information supplied by more than 300 banks around the country.

The survey offered a bright spot. The delinquency rate on a composite of other types of consumer loans, including popular home equity loans, dipped to 1.94 percent in the first quarter of this year. That was down from 2.02 percent in the final quarter of 2005.

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